The Elusive Executive Sponsor

One of the biggest predictors of project and program success is having an effective executive sponsor. This is the senior executive who "owns" the program and is responsible for making sure it's successful. The executive sponsor is typically the one who proposed the program and whose business unit or organization will receive the majority of the program's benefits. To be effective, he must have enough clout to make any business process or organizational changes the program requires. If your program has a missing, weak or superficially involved executive sponsor, failure is almost inevitable.

If it's difficult to identify who the executive sponsor should be, something about the proposed program may need to change. For example, when a major program crosses several organizational boundaries, it may be advantageous to break it into individual programs, each with its own executive sponsor.

Alternatively, the problem may be a flawed organizational structure. One client of mine recognized that its worldwide distribution system was ineffective and overly expensive. Since each region controlled its own logistics, no one owned the entire process. The client had to pull logistics out of the business units and create a corporate worldwide logistics organization in order to revamp its distribution system successfully.

Even after an appropriate executive sponsor has been identified, he may still resist taking responsibility for the program. An executive may be reluctant to serve as sponsor for a number of reasons:

? He is skeptical about the business case. Make sure you both have done your homework and all the data is correct. Then work with the executive sponsor to revise the business case data until you both agree. If the executive sponsor can't be convinced of the program's viability, you'll get lukewarm support at best. Be prepared to walk away from the program.

He doesn't feel sufficient pain. If the executive sponsor's business unit is meeting all of its targets, he may not believe that the new program will be worth the disruption it will cause. Determine whether the program will contribute to some personal win for the executive sponsor. If the personal win is large enough, the executive sponsor may be enticed to sign up.

He believes it's an IT program. Even today, some executives believe that any program involving computers is the responsibility of IT. Try to educate your targeted sponsor so that he sees the effort as a business program that is IT-enabled. I have recently seen a number of IT organizations respond to this problem by attempting to sponsor major business programs alone. IT can rarely push a business program through a corporation successfully, however. The majority of these programs are doomed to failure and should be canceled before they waste precious funding.

He isn't supporting the program for political reasons. If you believe that the executive is posturing or is afraid of his peers' reactions, call his bluff by threatening to cancel the program. You will quickly discover whether the objections are genuine.

He faces personal challenges. If an executive is close to retirement or facing personal difficulties such as a divorce or serious illness, he may not want to take on another major, multiyear challenge. In these cases, it's best to wait until the crisis has passed or the executive has been replaced.

He lacks the requisite experience. The executive may not fully understand the responsibilities of an executive sponsor, or he may feel that his expertise is insufficient. Offer to supply the appropriate project management skills in return for his financial and political support of the program. This can be advantageous to IT because it ensures that the project manager will understand the IT side of the business.

An involved and committed executive sponsor is critical to program success. There's old joke that at a bacon-and-eggs breakfast, the chicken is involved, but the pig is committed. A good executive sponsor must be both. If he is involved but not committed, you will get lip-service support at best. If he is committed but not sufficiently involved, the program will suffer and probably fail.

Don't pursue a path that is doomed from the start. Do everything possible to acquire the necessary executive support for major programs upfront. Without the leverage provided by an effective executive sponsor, you might as well cancel the program and invest your dollars more wisely elsewhere.

Bart Perkins is managing partner at Louisville, Ky.-based Leverage Partners Inc., which helps organizations invest well in IT. He was previously CIO at Tricon Global Restaurants Inc. and Dole Food Co. Contact him at

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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